Press Reviews

Presteigne Festival

Presteigne Festival Press Reviews


The Times

22 August, 2013

Hagar in the Wilderness/Curlew River at Presteigne, Wales

Though it is only 35 minutes long and uses only three singers and five instrumentalists, Sally Beamish’s new chamber opera is nothing if not ambitious in allegorical scope. Deceptively simple in form, it narrates the biblical tale of Hagar, the Egyptian mother of Abraham’s illegitimate son, Ishmael, whom Abraham casts into the wilderness when his 70-year-old wife, Sarah, improbably gives birth to Isaac.

The story’s symbolic weight, however, is prodigious, because Ishmael and Isaac are respectively the progenitors of the Palestinians and the Jews. Clara Glynn’s rather too blunt modern libretto doesn’t let us forget that one side regards itself as ‘dispossessed’ and the other as God’s chosen race. ‘For the chosen, there’s plenty of water’, Kirsty Hopkins’s clear-toned and affecting Hagar sings, as she and her child stare at death in the desert before being rescued by the angel Gabriel. ‘Your future is not my problem’, she is told by Owen Gilhooly’s unyielding and unsympathetically depicted Abraham.

Happily, Beamish’s subtle score, deftly conducted by George Vass, counteracts this blatant subtext with beguiling delicacy: mellow, Ravel-like colours in which viola and flute are prominent; vaguely Middle Eastern melodic contours; pattering percussion and pizzicato bass. Richard Williams’s shoestring production, for the newish Nova Music Opera, also opts wisely for restrained literalism, rather than bludgeoning us with metaphorical significance.

Opening the consistently ambitious Presteigne Festival in the pretty Welsh border town, Hagar is intelligently coupled with Britten’s church parable Curlew River, which also focuses on a grieving parent and an angelic intervention. Williams’s otherwise conventional staging has its melodramatic lighting moments, with a blazing white cross suddenly appearing on the church wall, but the show is chiefly remarkable for Mark Milhofer’s wonderfully deranged interpretation of the Madwoman — his unhinged stares and dysfunctional twitches perfectly matching the disconcertingly creepy glissandos that infuse Britten’s score. Sturdy support, too, from Christopher Foster’s Traveller and Stephen Holloway’s Abbot. This intriguing double bill resurfaces in Canterbury and Oxford during the autumn.

Richard Morrison


The Guardian

22 August, 2013

Hagar in the Wilderness/Curlew River at the Presteigne Festival

For the first time in its 31-year history, the Presteigne festival has produced an opera. In a collaboration with Nova Music Opera, and funded by the Britten-Pears Foundation, Sally Beamish was commissioned to write a short chamber opera as a companion piece to Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River.

The theme of motherhood and loss was common to both and seemed to offer a strong pairing. Britten’s church parable has a madwoman searching for her lost son, while the Old Testament story of Hagar is that of the handmaid who bears Abraham’s first child, but is cast into the wilderness with her infant when his wife, Sarah, miraculously bears him a second son in old age. Hagar and Ishmael are spared death when God sends the angel Gabriel to create a spring of water. Yet Clara Glynn’s libretto was full of banalities and might have benefited from being less clearly articulated by Kirsty Hopkins as Hagar and Owen Gilhooly as Abraham. Beamish’s instrumental writing was effective, hand-played drums and expressive flute-writing creating episodes of Brittenesque atmosphere. Yet any sense of dramatic trajectory felt compromised. Hagar’s anguish, first at her rejection, then at the prospect of watching her baby die, lacked the heart-wrench it needed, and even her encounter with the deus ex machina of Gabriel, well sung by Edmund Hastings, was flat.

Instead, the evening’s emotional peak came in Mark Milhofer’s fine portrayal of Britten’s Madwoman. St Andrew’s church provided an intimacy equivalent to that of Orford Church, where Curlew River was first heard and, under George Vass’s baton, Nova Music Opera’s realisation had the virtue of unpretentiousness, the Abbot in a pale-coloured kimono the only nod to Britten’s Japanese inspiration. Milhofer’s performance was notable not only for its vocal poise, but for his use of eyes and hands to convey the torment of not knowing and, eventually, a pained quietude at the realisation of her son’s fate. It was impossible not to care about this character.

Rian Evans


The Birmingham Post

29 August, 2013

Much of its format remains cosily unchanging, but the Presteigne Festival last week celebrated its 31st year with a new direction, its first-ever venture into opera. Artistic director George Vass brought his recently-formed Nova Music Opera to perform a double-bill (and preceding this already ultra-long weekend with an extra night), and the ancient St Andrew’s Church proved an ideal setting for Britten’s Curlew River.

This ‘Church Parable’, culture-mixing a ritualistic presentation by Christian medieval monks in the style of a Japanese Noh play, is slow-moving and emotionally cumulative, and was delivered here with well-paced engagement. Director Richard Williams missed a trick in not using the central aisle as a processional resource, but the quietly patient staging on the chancel, sensitively lit, well conveyed the work’s message of despair and closure.

And as the Madwoman Mark Milhofer was simply extraordinary, body-language continually alive with well-observed gestures of emotional stress, his vocal delivery clear, touching, and bringing relevance to William Plomer’s somewhat arch libretto.

George Vass conducted with fluency and authority, as he did in the world premiere of Sally Beamish’s Hagar in the Wilderness, a Festival commission with Nova Music. This proved a disappointment, Beamish’s score not much more than an underpinning of the disturbingly banal libretto by Clara Glynn, and the inconsistent mood and staging of the whole enterprise. We began as a comedy and ended with some kind of ‘miricle’ (one of the singers’ spectacular and repeated mispronunciation). But Kirsty Hopkins sang with agility and genuine emotional involvement as Abraham’s discarded Hagar.

A later event brought a much more rewarding premiere (in Wales, already Englished in Cheltenham), David Matthews’ Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and String Orchestra. Lyrical, exuberant, folky, and with an enchanting birdsong interlude at its heart, this has a Tippettian luminosity, and was delivered with smiling enthusiasm by soloists Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley, coping well with the score’s constantly-changing time-signatures.

It all sounds deceptively easy, but if it did so, this is largely due in measure to Vass’ remarkable rehearsal efficiency, and will have been a huge education to the enthusiastic and youthful Presteigne Festival Orchestra (who also gave us a gorgeously poised, well-balanced account of Lennox Berkeley’s elegant Serenade for Strings).

Alongside Matthews, another of Presteigne’s in-house composers is James Francis Brown, whose music’s approachability belies its depth of thought, and always stands firmly on its own feet. His Songs of Nature and Farewell were evocatively delivered by soprano Helen-Jane Howells, sometimes sombre, sometimes radiantly, with instrumentalists from the Presteigne Festival Soloists responding enthusiastically to Brown’s resourceful scoring.

Christopher Morley


The Hereford Times

Tuesday 4 September, 2013

Celebrating the great, reviving the neglected, defining eras, centenaries offer handy pegs for festival directors to hang programmes on, and this year’s Presteigne Festival was no exception. Arguably the most important British composer since Henry Purcell, and born an unbelievable hundred years ago, Benjamin Britten has long been a firm favourite of festival director George Vass.

Proceedings opened ambitiously with two one-act operas. Commissioned by the festival, and setting a biblical libretto by Clara Glynn, Sally Beamish’s tautly-written Hagar in the Wilderness was impressive despite makeshift staging. Beamish’s score makes clever use of a quintet of disparate instruments and her exemplary word setting was sung with great clarity by soprano Kirsty Hopkins in the title role, and with stentorian power by Owen Gilhooly as the overbearing Abraham. It was followed by Britten’s Curlew River, which can roughly be described as a Japanese Noh play transmuted to a Fenland abbey. It is a parable in which a madwoman ‘from the Black Mountains’ (some audience titters here) arrives in search of her lost son. Here again the instrumental ensemble was sparse but colourful, and if the hefty singing of the monks was more testosterone than tonsure, when combined with tenor Mark Milhofer’s keenings as the madwoman the result was scalp-tingling.

The next day saw ‘Piano in the Afternoon’ a recital by the impressive Clare Hammond featuring no less than six living composers. She returned later in the festival to join the wonderful Badke String Quartet in Shostakovitch’s enigmatic Piano Quintet, which followed the finely-wrought first quartets of Britten and Ian Wilson. She was also the soloist in Gabriel Jackson’s smile-raising Piano Concerto, revisited from earlier festivals alongside Adrian Williams’s somewhat enigmatic Maelienydd and David Matthews’s exquisitely touching Winter Remembered.

On the rostrum George Vass directed his youthful and espert Festival Orchestra in attractive works by extant composers sandwiched between twentieth century neo-classical masterworks by Lennox Berkeley and Stravinsky. David Matthews’s recent and ravishing Double Concerto for Violin, Viola and Strings offered soloists Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley much scope for virtuosic expression, while the evocative landscapes of Joseph Phibbs Clarinet Concerto were beautifully illumined by the admirable Catriona Scott.

Celebrating his 70th birthday year, Matthews featured again in a song recital by tenor Andrew Tortise with pianist Chris Hopkins. His Three Dunwich Songs – recalling his time spent at Aldeburgh as Britten’s assistant – followed Tippett’s poignant song-cycle The Heart’s Assurance and were in turn followed by Gabriel Jackson’s thoughtful Ruined Land. Vocally somewhat relentless, this demanding recital ended with Wild Cyclamen – a touching cycle of love songs by Presteigne doyen Hugh Wood.

You certainly get your money’s worth at Presteigne. ‘Less is more’ is definitely not George Vass’s motto. In Pembridge Church the Sine Nomine Touring Choir, ably directed by Susan Hollingsworth, gave an impressive display of close-knit a capella singing. The non-stop programme culminated in Gabriel Jackson’s telling Requiem – an extensive work that would almost have been enough on its own. Instead, it shared space with four other intensely-written works, thus testing the stamina of performers and audience alike.

Even after attending eight concerts, half-a-dozen pre-concert talks and an interesting exhibition at Sir Sidney Nolan’s former home that revealed Britten’s association with the artist, one was still aware that one had barely scratched the surface of the magical and unique annual event that is the Presteigne Festival. It remains a massive achievement.

John Rushby Smith



The Times

Tuesday 28 August, 2012

Got up. Bemoaned the grey sky. Trotted off to a concert. Heard something terrific. The sun came out. Concert number two. Started to rain. So the days went at the 30th edition of the Presteigne Festival in the tiny town nestling between Radnorshire’s rolling hills – looking especially green after this summer’s downpours.

The music-making was luscious too. George Vass, the event’s director for the past 20 years, has always been a wizard at finding the necessary talent and money to commission attractive new pieces, but the 2012 crop in the first three days proved unusually strong. We started with Island Songs, a haunting, ecologically slanted wonder from the Australian veteran Peter Sculthorpe, rooted in melodies from the continent’s outer fringes. Each instrumental component – saxophone, strings, percussion – was subtly deployed: an elegiac cry from soloist Amy Dickson, shivering cymbals there, with a cello sometimes weeping in undergrowth.

Bizarrely dressed like a Greek goddess, Dickson displayed more skills in her Friday recital with the pianist Catherine Milledge. Though better than an hour with a squealing pig, close confinement with a soprano saxophone doesn’t offer the ear vast variety. But it was worth some monotony for Chris Brammeld’s competition entry Three Inventions, winner of the festival’s third Alan Home Composition Prize. Dickson’s lips and fingers easily survived Brammeld’s challenges; perhaps she’s a goddess after all.

Saturday’s anniversary gala concert brought another striking creation in Matthew Taylor’s Variations on a Theme of Reger, one of numerous string pieces spiritedly despatched by Vass and the persuasive Presteigne Festival Orchestra. Max Reger’s music is currently as fashionable as an Eton collar, to which it bears some resemblance, but Taylor found a lively and flexible tune easily fit for eleven variations covering a wide expressive range. A tad too long, but Taylor’s technical dexterity and ear-friendly language steered it to victory.

Other contemporary pieces showed the virtues in what might be called ‘tonality-plus’. The Carducci Quartet revived David Matthews’s masterly String Quartet No 3 and gave the premiere of John McCabe’s Seventh. Subtitled Summer eves(after Keats), this offered 23 engaging minutes of classical niceties, scuttling fast rhythms and mellow lyricism. The quartet leader Matthew Denton has a rather reticent manner, though it didn’t stop the ensemble scaling the heights in Beethoven’s (First) Razumovsky Quartet.

Elsewhere, Haydn’s Nelson Mass rang out splendidly, with Matthew Long’s open tenor voice a particular pleasure. And throughout the weekend we were knee-deep in Sally Beamish, a composer very much in residence. Five Poems from the Forest, reworked from an earlier vocal piece, and burdened with over theatrical readings from Crawford Logan, didn’t quite work, but Beamish’s mastery of atmosphere and Sarah-Jane Bradley’s viola made Under the Wing of the Rock a humane triumph.

Geoff Brown


The Birmingham Post

Friday 31 August, 2012

Although contemporary music lies at the core of the Presteigne Festival it’s often mainstream works that provide the framework to individual concerts. In Gillian Keith’s recital on Monday afternoon, for example, Richard Strauss, Debussy and Walton separated two groups of songs, including one premiere, by six very much alive composers.

Of these the new work, ‘I Travelled among Unknown Men’ by Peter Fribbins, offered a refreshingly unpretentious setting of Wordsworth’s poem, slight in emotional range, but beautifully delivered by Keith.

It was good, too, to revisit three songs from the collaborative ‘A Garland for Presteigne’ of 2003, notably Adrian Williams’ vividly programmatic ‘Red Kite Flying,’ with its wheeling and plunging piano part so brilliantly executed by Simon Lepper.

Lepper was equally responsive in Strauss’s ‘Mädchenblumen’ and Debussy’s ‘Poèmes de Paul Verlaine’, alert to every nuance of both singer (Keith’s vibrant tone, elegant phrasing and facial expressions knowingly communicated the romantic essence of each song) and the music itself; and in James Francis Brown’s ‘Ozymandias’ she demonstrated her versatility by adopting a completely different demeanour – steely, dark and moodily brooding.

Unlike Keith’s music-centred approach (no chatting to the audience) Nicholas Daniel made the ‘David Humphreys Memorial Concert’ into a celebrity event. Here, too, the programme was neatly shaped around older composers, with Hindemith and Saint-Saëns framing Thea Musgrave and Britten in the first half, while Schumann and Bach embraced Michael and Lennox Berkeley in the second.

So, nothing wrong with the choice of music, or indeed its marvellously accomplished execution by Daniel, who in truth is a superb oboist, and his pianist Tom Poster. But did we really need spoken introductions to nearly every item?

With each episode described in detail Britten’s ‘Six Metamorphoses after Ovid’ became a very unwieldy collection; and a mini-lecture on transposing instruments before playing Schumann’s ‘ Drei Fantasiestücke’ on the oboe d’amore smacked of condescension towards Presteigne’s more seasoned festival-goers.

Fortunately there was none of that the previous evening, when Daniel appeared with the Carducci Quartet in the premiere of Michael Berkeley’s Oboe Quintet. Here comments were entirely appropriate, deftly explaining the genesis of the work and its connection with artist John Craxton, whose sister Janet was Daniel’s teacher.

The quintet grows from a three-note idea which blossoms out into increasingly more complex textures, the oboe variously blending in with the strings or, more significantly, standing apart as a contrasting voice.

Often quietly elegiac (though the subtleties of Berkeley’s expanded tonality require more than one hearing to be fully appreciated) the piece becomes hauntingly intense as it progresses, culminating in an almost valedictory coda, where the initial motif returns in different forms and the ending has the oboe intriguingly breaking off in mid-sentence – a wonderfully pithy effect.

By comparison composer-in-residence Sally Beamish’s String Quartet No 2 ‘Opus California’ seemed quite terse and witty, with its briefly glimpsed quotations from Beethoven and stylistic references to the music of West Coast America. For a composer who usually takes herself very seriously this was definitely a fun piece, cheerfully upbeat in the opening ‘Boardwalk’, by turns peaceful and lyrical in the middle movements, and finishing in a flurry of jazz-inflected activity. The Carduccis played it with considerable élan, as they did Mendelssohn’s F minor Quartet at the end of the programme.

In Tuesday’s ‘Festival Finale’ Vaughan Williams and Tippett provided the outer arms for Paul Patterson’s ‘Allusions’ and Beamish’s last festival contribution. This was a revised version of ‘No, I’m not afraid’ (strange that merely swapping the original oboe part for a soprano saxophone – here the admirable Amy Dickson – should be described as a world premiere), a realisation of six poems by Russian dissident Irina Ratushinskaya for speaker (Beamish herself narrated) and chamber ensemble.

Totally different in style and temperament to Sunday’s quartet this was a mostly grim experience, occasionally lightened by flashes of sardonic humour, and expressed musically with a freely atonal, brittle intensity. Coming after VW’s ‘Tallis’ Fantasia, which George Vass and his well-honed Presteigne Festival Orchestra tackled bravely in a totally unsuitable acoustic, it was a true shock to the system.

David Hart


The Birmingham Post

Friday 31 August, 2012

During its three-decade history the Festival held every year in this historic town straddling the Welsh borderland has produced many memorable premieres of new works commissioned from a wide range of composers – and not only British ones.

Included in this glittering gallery is Peter Sculthorpe, highly respected beyond his Australian homeland, a welcome visitor here several years ago, and this time round contributing ‘Island Songs’ for saxophone, string orchestra and percussion, two movements breathing the timelessness of the North Australian landscape, and whose first performance was the highlight of Thursday’s opening concert.

Sculthorpe’s compatriot Amy Dickson was soloist, weaving her way eloquently through the three indigenous songs which form the basis for this achingly lyrical work, bravely scaling down her volume sometimes to an arresting whisper, drawing tones from her soprano saxophone as vocal as a clarinet or as penetrating as an oboe, before eventually turning to the mellowness of her alto sax.

Under George Vass the strings of the Presteigne Festival Orchestra rose to the exposed challenges of Sculthorpe’s fertile textures, and percussionist Jonny Grogan contributed sensitively to this shimmering backcloth of sound.

The programme began and ended with examples from one of this year’s festival themes, an exploration of English string orchestra pieces: William Alwyn’s Concerto Grosso No 2, born from a pedigree of good provenance, losing out in comparison with Britten’s super-accomplished ‘Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge’, bold, astringent, adroit, suave and fizzing, with remarkable depth of tone and secure intonation from Vass’ resourceful orchestra.

This year’s composer-in-residence was Sally Beamish, her generous presence here beginning with ‘Under the Wing of the Rock’ for viola (the sensitively communicative Sarah-Jane Bradley) and strings, quietly impassioned, and a kind of Celtic ‘Lark Ascending’.

This subliminal Gloucestershire connection continued with Beamish’s ‘Five Poems from the Forest’ in Friday’s concert from the excellent Carducci Quartet, Bradley the extra violist, narrated settings of poems by David Pownall about the Forest of Dean.

Despite the lovely shifting sound-tapestry, this structure is halting and faltering, inhibiting the flow of the poetry’s delivery. Crawford Logan was the characterful reciter, his overmiking unbalancing the sound-picture, and drawing too much attention to these verses (one of which, describing a visit to the local tip which could be happening anywhere, seemed inappropriate) which could possibly be offensive to genuine foresters refusing to be patronised by incoming grockles.

John McCabe’s String Quartet No 7, a Presteigne Festival commission premiered here, could have been better placed other than at the beginning of this concert. Well-judged and closely-argued, it deserved ears more warmed-up as it moves from a first movement of tight Bartokian intervals, through two ‘scherzi’ one perky, one ruthlessly energetic, towards an ‘adagio’ where a visionarily unfolding line is interrupted by grumbling interjections, only eventually sublimated.

The finale brings relaxation, a sturdy dance of triumph, and sunset tranquility.

Saturday’s ‘30th Anniversary Gala Concert’ brought two world premieres, beginning with Sally Beamish’s reworking for counter-tenor, oboe, string orchestra and percussion of her ‘Divan, on themes of Hafez’, translations of typically enigmatic texts by a medieval Persian poet.

The oboe writing, searching across the registers, was delivered by Nicholas Daniel with crisp articulation and well-phrased fluency. Vass’s PFO concentrated throughout these 28 minutes with praiseworthy commitment, rewarded by some occasionally vivifying writing.

But these were a long 28 minutes as we laboured through what was really a handful of settings, William Purefoy’s creamy counter-tenor set in registers which impaired clarity of diction, and forced to gabble in the only setting which leapt into life amid all the well-worn orientalisms of the piece.

And well-worn was the vocabulary of string-orchestra devices we heard in ‘Variations on a Theme of Reger’ by the experienced conductor Matthew Taylor.

This began ear-cleansingly, Reger’s little Sonatina theme brightly scored by Taylor, but the music, cerebrally finding out all 12 key-centres imposed upon a four-movement symphonic template, gradually sank into paralysed inertia until a cheery finale, almost tacked-on, woke everything up.

Christopher Morley

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